Pascal, and the mind

October 20, 2014

There’s much more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], which we’ve already encountered in CoPhi.

Besides his mathematics and “Pascaline,” his proto-computer, there are all those thoughts (Pensees) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow  philosophe FrancaisMontaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois. Blaise is hostile to both Rene and Michel but is a cautious gambler, finding Descartes’ God too antiseptic and too, well, philosophical. And he finds Montaigne a self-absorbed, trivia-mongering potty-mouth.

Voltaire, whom we’ll soon meet, intervened in the Pascal-Montaigne conflict. He called Pascal a “sublime misanthropist” whose vision of humanity as imprisoned and terrorized by the immensity and uncertainty of the cosmos was “fanatic.” (Bakewell)

But Montaigne would not at all disagree that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” And isn’t it funny to think of Descartes philosophizing in his hypothetical armchair, asking if his fire and his body (etc.) are real, pretending to speculate that all the world and its philosophical problems might be figments of his solipsistic or dreamy or demon-instigated imagination? And then funnier still to come across this quote from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  But look what happens when a philosopher sits quietly in a room alone: you get the Meditations!
Pascal also said

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” And “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.”


“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”


“The nature of man is wholly natural, omne animal. There is nothing he may not make natural; there is nothing natural he may not lose.”*


“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me…” [Or as Jimmy Buffett says, carry the weather with you.]

And all military veterans especially should appreciate this one:

“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

And this will be an epigraph for my Philosophy Walks (or its sequel Philosophy Rides):

“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”

But Pascal does finally blow the big game of life, for betting too heavily on self-interest. He’s obsessed with “saving [his] own soul at all costs.” That’s a losing proposition.

[*That statement about us being "omne animal" sounded flattering, to me, being a philosophical naturalist and a friend to animals. But later epigraphs indicate Pascal's platonist perfectionism and his derogatory attitude towards humanity and its natural condition. Without God's grace, he writes, we are "like unto the brute beasts." He doesn't seem pleased about that, but I'm with Walt Whitman: "I think I could turn and live with animals, they're so placid and self contain'd... They do not sweat and whine about their condition... They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God..."]

Julia Sweeney, donning her no-god glasses, gets to the nub of what’s wrong with Pascal’s Wager:

So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, “Do I really believe in a personal God,” and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?

I thought of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal argued that it’s better to bet there is a God, because if you’re wrong there’s nothing to lose, but if there is, you win an eternity in heaven. But I can’t force myself to believe, just in case it turns out to be true. The God I’ve been praying to knows what I think, he doesn’t just make sure I show up for church. How could I possibly pretend to believe? I might convince other people, but surely not God.

And probably not Richard Rorty, for whom philosophy is not about nailing down the unequivocal Truth but rather continuing the never-concluding Conversation of humankind. 
Rorty was the most controversial philosopher on the scene back when I began grad school, having just published his brilliantly and infuriatingly iconoclastic Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Everybody had to have a view on it, and on his view that philosophy’s long quest to represent “external reality” accurately was a waste of time we were free to give up. We could ditch our “comic” efforts “to guarantee this and clarify that.” 

Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister–corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.

My current position, after several oscillations, has settled at last into the earnest wish that more philosophers wrote as wittily and as well as he did. Almost none do. Did he get pragmatism and truth right? I guess that’s what he’d call a duct tape question.

Rorty, with his metaphor of mind as (cloudy) mirror, is a good segue to the discussion of philosophy of mind, also on tap today.

Dualism gets us ghosts and spirits and other non-physical entities. Scary! But not for most students, I’ve found, so deeply have most of them drunk from the holy communion trough. It’s not a question of evidence but of familiarity and fear, in many cases – fear of the alternative. A student expressed that just the other day, asking with incredulity and contempt how anyone could possibly ponder facing the end of mortal existence without an immortal safety net firmly in place (in mind).

Why do they think the evolution of mind so closely parallels that of the brain? They don’t think about it, mostly.

Nor  do most think much about the possibility of mind and body being on parallel but never-converging tracks, pre-arranged to keep a synchronous schedule and never throw up a discordant discrepant “occasion.” And forget too about epiphenomenalism (which Sam Harris seems to be trying hard to revive).

If neuroscientists ever succeed in mapping the brain and modeling the causal neurological events correlated with thinking, will that solve the mystery of consciousness? Is there a gap between the explanation and the experience of pain, pleasure, happiness, etc.? I say no and yes, respectively. But let’s try and draw that map, it may take us to interesting places none of us have thought about.

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Reductionism and the science of love

October 17, 2014

Trying to distract myself this morning from the outcome of last night’s ballgame. The red tie I wore to class did not help my team. The upside, though, is that now I can root for Cinderella in the World Series. She’ll be wearing blue this year.

Speaking of red…

Good reports yesterday in CoPhi, on mental illness, Karl Marx, and love. The last segued perfectly from our text’s contention that novelists and poets do a much better job than scientists of explaining love. And yet, much light is shed by biochemistry, neuroscience, and psychology. The reporters showed us this:

One of my discussion questions to the class yesterday was whether anything ought not to be studied scientifically. I say no. But I also say, keep those poems and novels coming. We should feel good about every opportunity to glean insight into our amazing brains. It’s not scientism to seek understanding, so long as we leave room in our science for ourselves. 
And that reminds me of the interesting bar conversation we had night before last on reductionism. Most scientists are methodological reductionists, seeking the ultimate causal conditions of phenomena. Nothing wrong with that, so long as we resist the explanatory reductionism that would dispatch and dismiss every other approach including poetry and fiction and (as we also discussed in class yesterday) the rambling self-seeking sort of essay (“attempt”) that Montaigne patented.
And that reminds me to pick up E.O. Wilson’s latest book, humbly titled The Meaning of Human Existence. He’s been widely panned as the worst sort of reductionist, ever since “sociobiology” got him a pie in the face – or was it a dash of cold water? But he was saying nice, non-reductionist-sounding things about the humanities on the radio the other day. Science needs us humanists, he seemed to be saying, as much as humanists need the reality as limned by science. Beware talk of “replacing” one genre with another; but be open to mutually-instructive “colonization.”

Would the humanities care to colonize the sciences? Maybe use a little help doing that? How about replacing science fiction, the imagining of fantasy by a single mind, with new worlds of far greater diversity based on real science from many minds? Might poets and visual artists consider searching in the real world outside the range of ordinary dreams for unexplored dimensions, depth, and meaning? Would they be interested in finding the truth of what Nietzsche called, in Human, All Too Human, the rainbow colors around the outer edges of knowledge and imagination? That is where meaning is to be found.

Bridge the “two cultures” at last, without eliminating either? Contrary to my more “robust physicalist” friends, I would love that. 

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October 15, 2014
We’re back from Fall Break today, in CoPhi, with Montaigne (& Bakewell on How to Live acc’ing to M). One good way to live, he thought, was by writing and reflecting on our many uncertainties. Embracing and celebrating them, in fact. That makes him an anti-Descartes, a happy and humane modern skeptic.

One thing we know for sure is the historical timelineMontaigne comes first, but since I always introduce him as the anti-Descartes he rarely gets top billing. The late Robert Solomon did the same thing. Not fair, for a guy who gave us the essay and (as Sarah Bakewell says) is so much “fun” to read. Unlike Descartes he was a true skeptic (again though, not so far over the cliff as Pyrrho) and “quite happy to live with that.” His slogan was Que sçais-je?

Montaigne retired in his mid-30s to think and write, and ponder what must have felt to him (ever since his unplanned equine-dismounting event) like ever-looming mortality. He inscribed the beams of his study with many of his favorite quotes, including “nothing human is foreign to me” and “the only certainty is that nothing is certain.”

Some of Montaigne’s life-lessons and rules for how to live, as decoded by Sarah Bakewell: Don’t worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Be convivial; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; Give up control; Be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer.

 [Montaigne @dawn... M on Self-esteem (deB)... M quotes... M's beam inscriptions... M "In Our Time" (BBC)...M's tower...M's Essays]

Also today, we’ll consider the philosophical status of science. Montaigne the fallible skeptic actually had a better handle on it than Descartes, the self-appointed defender of scientific certainty. That’s because science is a trial-and-error affair, making “essays” or attempts at evidence/-based understanding through observation, prediction, and test, but always retreating happily to the drawing board when conjectures meet refutation.

Some DQs:

Are there any “authorities” (personal, textual, political, religious, institutional, traditional…) to whom you always and automatically defer? Can you justify this, intellectually or ethically?

Can you give an example of something you believe on the basis of probability, something else you believe because it has to be true (= follows necessarily from other premises you accept as true), and something you believe because you think it’s the “best explanation”)? Do you think most of your beliefs conform to one or another of these kinds of explanation?

Do you think science makes genuine progress? Does it gradually give us a better, richer account of the natural world and our place in it? Is there a definite correlation between technology and scientific understanding? Do you think there is anything that cannot or should not be studied scientifically? Why?

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Smile, it’s Fall Break!

October 10, 2014

Fall Break’s about to begin at our school. In the holiday spirit, and in the wake of yesterday’s tag-team midterm report presentation in CoPhi #10 on philosophy and comedy, here are two of my favorite George Carlin routines.

Here he is on his religious upbringing. 
And while I’m having fun here, a Python clip from #14. “Philosophy – is that a sport?” Sure is. “Would you like to talk about the meaning of life, darling?”
I still stand with Carlin Romano and his America the Philosophical thesis that, in the aggregate, we’re a much more reflective people than these two. But we all know know-nothings like these, don’t we? Bless their incurious souls. 

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“Success” and the Walrus

October 9, 2014

The Almanac, celebrating what should have been John Lennon’s 74th birthday today, outs his walrus as a greedy capitalist. John didn’t know that himself, even though his mostly-nonsensical-seeming lyrics clearly include a line about the ubiquitous “corporation tee-shirt” we’ve let ourselves billboard for the walrus for free.

John just knew the walrus as Lewis Carroll’s poetic subject in “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”

“To me, it was a beautiful poem. It never occurred to me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. I never went into that bit about what it really meant, like people are doing with Beatles work. Later I went back and looked at it and realized that the walrus was the bad guy… I thought, Oh, shit, I picked the wrong guy. I should have said, ‘I am the carpenter.’ But that wouldn’t have been the same, would it?”

“I never went into that bit about what it really meant, like people are doing with the Beatles…”

We do that in philosophy too, to a fault sometimes. But this little walrus tale nicely complements the discussion we had in CoPhi yesterday about happiness, hard work, goals, and “success.” What if you work hard, discover your passion in life (poetry, say, or music, or philosophy), become really good at it, and end up a “failure”?

Well, as one student succinctly put it, “that sucks.”

It does. But it sucks less for us (and more for them) when we remind ourselves that unexamined, conventional notions of success probably leave most “successful” people less than happily fulfilled. They are not Aristotle’s flourishing eudaimons. We still can be, regardless of monetary reward or deprivation.

Or as William James wrote to H.G. Wells in 1906,

“The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That -with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success’ – is our national disease.”

Don’t be the walrus. Be the carpenter.


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October 6, 2014

Rene Descartes, not at all (Pythons notwithstanding) a “drunken fart,” simply wanted to know what he could know for certain. His skepticism was methodological, his goal was indubitable certainty. This, he thought, would serve the new science well. He misunderstood the self-correcting, probabilistic, fallibilistic nature of empirical reasoning. But most philosophers still think it’s worth wondering: how do you know you’re not dreaming, not being deceived by a demon or by your senses, not mistaking your own essential nature?

Still, cogito ergo sum overrates intellect. You don’t have to think, to demonstrate your existence. You just have to do something… even, as an old grad school pal used to say, if it’s wrong.

I usually think of Charles Sanders Peirce as Descartes’ most practical critic, and I agree with him that a contrived and methodological doubt is not the best starting place in philosophy.

But it occurs to me that an even more practical alternative to what I consider the misguided Cartesian quest for certainty is old Ben Franklin’s Poore RichardHis is not armchair wisdom, it comes straight from the accumulated experience of the folk. Some of that “common sense” is too common, but plenty is dead-on. “Early to bed, early to rise…” has definitely worked for me.

Still, says Grayling, “we may disagree with Descartes that the right place to start is with the private data of consciousness” rather than the shared world of language and common experience; but even if he was wrong he was “powerfully, interestingly, and importantly wrong.”

Is there anything we know or believe that we could not possibly be mistaken about, or cannot reasonably doubt? Certainly not, speaking at least for myself. But I’m next to certain that I’m more-or-less awake, at this hour, as the coffee drains.

I’m also pretty darn sure that I am (and do not “have”) a body/brain. When I think of who, what, and where I am, though, the answer is interestingly complicated by all my relations (I don’t just mean my extended family): I am inclusive of a past and a future (though it keeps shrinking), and of wherever my influence (for better or worse) manages to stretch. I am vitally related by experience (actual, virtual, vicarious, possible, personal, interpersonal) to points far and wide. And, to physical object. I’m not trapped in my skin, and we’re definitely not alone in a solipsistic universe. Like Dr. Johnson, I find the pain in my toes (or hips) definitely more substantial than an idea. 

I don’t believe in ghosts, except metaphorically. (I am haunted by opportunities missed, and possibilities unnnoticed.) But most of my metaphorical spooks are Casperishly friendly. This is true of most people who read and think a lot, isn’t it? We’re in constant, happy communion with the dead. Books transport us to their realm, and to the great undiscovered country of the future as well.

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October 4, 2014

Mark Twain said there’s nothing sadder than a young pessimist.

But there is: a despairing young pessimist who yields to her despair and, in a weak irretrievable moment, pre-emptively terminates all the marvelous unexplored possibilities of the precious gift of her one and only life. A young woman we knew did just that, we learned yesterday. So sad.

So sad, as Jennifer Michael Hecht writes, that she couldn’t imagine the conversation she might have had with a later version of herself, the conversation that would have persuaded her to stay. “The person in the future deserves to exist…” She owes it to herself, and we all owe those who persevere and affirm life’s priceless value.

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Autumn light

October 2, 2014

Another 90 degree day awaits, but cooler days are coming. Autumn can be a solemn season for some, with the fall of every Freddie the Leaf. But we don’t really begin to feel it here ’til around Halloween.

My Peanuts page-a-day has been playing with the solemnity of Fall. Linus and Charlie Brown gleaned this lesson: “Don’t be a leaf. Be a tree.” There are figurative ways to do that, but even the oldest trees must eventually fall. Maybe better to be a root, better still to be the soil.

But this is a birthday for Peanuts (originally “L’l Folks”), in 1950. Charles Schulz said “winning is great, but it isn’t funny.” Detractors say Peanuts isn’t that funny either, but I think it’s often profoundly wise and humane and compassionate. Better than funny.

Also, today’s Wallace Stevens’ birthday. He walked two miles to work at the Insurance Company every day, composing great poems in transit. For him, poetry was god and the whole human race was a poem.

Speaking of god: what a terrific job our reporters in section 13 did yesterday, with their version of “This I Believe.” John gave us his version of Paley’s watch analogy (which still doesn’t impress) and his conviction that some huge intelligence must exist to have created a “ball” big enough to bang out a universe, and to insure ultimate justice (“accountability”). Then in turn we heard Savannah’s agnosticism, Carolyn’s atheism, and McKayla’s scientism. There followed a brief but equally thoughtful class discussion. One of those days that make me grateful for my profession.

And since I cadge from them so much, I should also profess my gratitude for the Almanac. Yesterday they ran a Mark Strand poem I wish I’d written.

For Jessica, My Daughter

Tonight I walked,
lost in my own meditation,
and was afraid,
not of the labyrinth
that I have made of love and self
but of the dark and faraway.
I walked, hearing the wind in the trees,
feeling the cold against my skin,
but what I dwelled on
were the stars blazing
in the immense arc of sky.

Jessica, it is so much easier
to think of our lives,
as we move under the brief luster of leaves,
loving what we have,
than to think of how it is
such small beings as we
travel in the dark
with no visible way
or end in sight.

Yet there were times I remember
under the same sky
when the body’s bones became light
and the wound of the skull
opened to receive
the cold rays of the cosmos,
and were, for an instant,
themselves the cosmos,
there were times when I could believe
we were the children of stars
and our words were made of the same
dust that flames in space,
times when I could feel in the lightness of breath
the weight of a whole day
come to rest.

But tonight
it is different.
Afraid of the dark
in which we drift or vanish altogether,
I imagine a light
that would not let us stray too far apart,
a secret moon or mirror,
a sheet of paper,
something you could carry
in the dark
when I am away.

“For Jessica, My Daughter” by Mark Strand, from Collected Poems. © Knopf, 2014. Reprinted with permission. 

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October 1, 2014

“Hobbes was fond of his dram,” sang the Pythons. But he was fonder of his stick. His walking stick. (See below.)

I was amused when my old friend said he’d just spent five weeks in Britain and came away with nothing more philosophical than a visit to a castle where Hobbes had tutored. My colleague answered rightly by noting that an ancient English castle’s more likely to stimulate the philosophical imagination than is a dusty library in Tennessee. But in any event, Hobbes is a fascinating and over-maligned figure whose steps I look forward to tracking. As I wrote for students awhile back,

Thomas Hobbes is one of my favorite “authoritarians”: a walker who kept an inkwell in his walking stick, hehobbes-walking-stick lived to 91 in the 17th century and believed humans could be saved from themselves with the right kind of contract. Contrary to a student essay I once graded, he did not say pre-social contract humans were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Hobbes did say that’s what it would be like to live in a “state of nature,” without civil authority or police or government to keep the peace and impose order. It would be a “war of all against all.” If you don’t agree, asks Nigel Warburton in his Little History, why do you lock your doors? 

Not, surely, because you think everyone’s out to get you. But it only takes a few miscreants, doesn’t it, to create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust?

I’d like to think Hobbes might reconsider the extremity of his position, were he transported to our time. On the other hand, we might reconsider the benignity of ours, were we transported to his. Those were tough times: civil war, a king executed, murderous politics, etc. How much freedom would you trade for peace and safety, if there were no other way to  secure it? How much have you? How secure do you feel? Still relevant questions in our time, and Hobbes’s answers were extreme indeed. But he was no monster, he was a peace-seeker and a civilizer. Most walkers are.

But, would life in a state of nature really be as bad as Hobbes thought? Most of us find most people less than totally distrustful, hostile, aggressive, and  vicious, most of the time. On the other hand, we’re most of us hardly “noble savages” either. Civilization and its discontent-engendering institutions account for a percentage of everyday bad behavior, but surely not all of it.
The Hobbesian threat of insecurity and fear of violent death, in our time, may be great enough for most people to override their desire for personal freedom. Is safety more important than liberty? “Better red (or whatever) than dead?” Better to have government snoops monitoring your calls, emails, etc., than… than what, exactly?
Even if you agree with Hobbes that humans left to themselves would revert to base, aggressive, instinctive behavior, you may still also hesitate to agree that the only corrective for this condition is an all-powerful and authoritative central state. You may prefer not to concede the mechanistic, material model of humans as incapable of changing, of choosing to become more kind and compassionate, less fearful and selfish. You may hold out for a species capable of rewriting its default programming.
Speculations about human nature as inherently good or bad have always slighted the individuality of persons, absorbing it in abstractions about universal nature. We should seek instead to grasp the particularity of our separate natures. Our separate plural natures.
“Common sense” gets things wrong often enough and egregiously enough – the flatness of earth, the rectitude of slavery, etc.? – to give serious pause. Uncommon sense is in shorter supply, and greater demand.
Finally today: Descartes’ dreams of reality and appearance, and ours. Mine are not usually so lucid, but others say otherwise of theirs. Is it really possible to alter the “real world” by controlling your dreams? I’m skeptical.
And can someone please explain “Inception” to me?

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Machiavelli, & civil disobedience

September 29, 2014
Mistrust, suspicion, refusal to really listen to others: these are symptomatic features of the world as Machiavelli (and Hobbes, coming next) knew it, a world full of testimonial injustice. Not to mention intrigue, plot, war, and violence. The more things change…

Niccolo Machiavelli praised virtu’ in a leader: manliness and valor are euphemistic translations, ruthless efficiency might be more to the point. The intended implication of “manly” is not so much machismo as hu-manity, with a twist. Machiavelli’s manly prince judiciously wields and conceals the guile of the fox and the brutality of the lion, all the while brandishing an image of kindhearted wisdom. A wise prince, he said, does whatever it takes to serve the public interest as he sees it. But does he see it aright? Hard to tell, if you can’t believe a word he says. But Skinner and others think he’s gotten a bad name unfairly. (See videos below.)
A new detective mystery starring Nicco has recently been published, btw, and was featured on NPR. “What would happen if two of the biggest names of the Renaissance — Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci — teamed up as a crime-fighting duo?” Beats me, may have to read The Malice of FortuneOne of our groups, I think, is doing a midterm report on Superheroes & Villains. Room for one more?

I’m a bit puzzled by the sentimental fondness some seem to feel for “machiavellian” politicians. Haven’t we had enough of those? Wouldn’t we rather be led by Ciceronians and Senecans and Roosevelts, evincing qualities of compassion and (relative) transparency? Don’t we wish them to affirm and work for the goals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor’s great post-White House achievememt?

We’re talking civil disobedience too, today. Again Nigel slights the Yanks, in not mentioning Thoreau“If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”  And,

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?

So, here’s my Discussion Question today: Have you ever engaged in an act of deliberate law-breaking, in order to challenge what you considered an unjust law? Are there circumstances in which you would do so? Would you risk arrest on behalf of social justice, climate change, or anything else? Will you at least support those who do? Are you a compliantist, a gradualist, or a transgressive reformer?

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